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  • Terry Glaspey

Lenten Journey with Art #9

James Tissot, What Our Lord Saw from the Cross, 1894

The crucifixion is one of the most oft-represented events in Christian art, and few artists of note have not tried their hand at creating their own version of this turning point in history. Because it is such a common image, we tend to come to it with expectations about what we will find. But James Tissot subverts all these expectations with this unique depiction of Jesus on the cross. The usual conventions are overturned as we witness the scene not from the normal vantage point, but from Jesus’ own perspective. We are seeing what He saw as He hung upon the cross. From this almost vertiginous height we understand the paradox of His experience during His final hours—He was surrounded by others (a crowd of friends, family, Roman soldiers, and curious onlookers), and yet He was entirely alone. The path to our salvation was one that only He could walk, and it was a burden that He had to carry by Himself. He felt forsaken and forgotten as He cried out to His Father. James Tissot was a popular painter in the age of impressionism, known for a highly finished style and depictions of fashionable ladies, mostly in urban settings. Then, a midlife return to faith inspired an interest in the Bible, and especially the Gospels. He determined that he would undertake an extensive series of paintings covering every major event recorded in the Gospels. Because he wanted to avoid the usual anachronisms of religious painting, he did extensive research in preparation, spending an extended time in the Holy Land sketching plants, wildlife, architecture, and landscape, as well as interviewing rabbis and studying Jewish customs. His goal was to achieve accuracy in his depictions; an almost journalistic approach. It ended up being a ten-year project and culminated in a series of 350 watercolors marked by exquisite detail and a deep spiritual vision. When the paintings were eventually toured around the world, they proved so moving that museum-goers could often be found weeping in front of them or even kneeling in reverence before the images. Not all of them are as original as What Our Lord Saw from the Cross, but they tell their story with both dignity and passion. Tissot’s painting of the crucifixion from Jesus’ perspective gives us pause to consider afresh what He might have felt and thought as He hung there against the sky. And I wonder if this collection of faces, all focused back upon Him as He is dying, is meant to be a reminder that each and every one of these people is someone whom Jesus loved, and for whom He was giving His life. One can imagine Him scanning the crowd, one person at a time, and feeling both the crushing weight of their sin and sorrow and shame which pinned Him to the cross, and a love beyond all imagining that transcended all their hurt and history. I think Tissot is suggesting that you and I are also invited to take our place at the foot of the cross and place ourselves in the loving gaze of the One who knows us…and who loves us.

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